JAMAICA – The latest Sandals resort opened in Jamaica this month but controversy continues to surround the concept of all-inclusive hotels.
Sandals, which Jamaican businessman Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart owns, is the largest operator of luxury all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean.
There are 12 couple-only properties in the region with seven of them in Jamaica.
This 360-bedroom resort, which has newly opened in Jamaica is the 50-acre Sandals Whitehouse European Village and Spa, and is the first development of its kind on the island’s south coast.
The fragile community of Whitehouse and the neighbouring villages of Belmont and Bluefields have until now relied on fishing as the mainstay of their income.
With a total of just 150 beds in guest houses around the beautiful turquoise-blue bay, the rural community has suddenly found its potential number of visitors more than doubled overnight.
Community leaders are anxious to capitalise on the potential benefits of such a huge new business in their midst but are worried about the experiences of the neighbouring resort town of Negril where all-inclusive hotels have long been established.
In what has been hailed as one of the busiest tourist seasons for years, small business owners in Negril are critical of the big resorts.
Famed for its seven-mile sandy beach and laid back cliff-side community on the West End, Negril has a number of all-inclusive resorts, including several operated by Sandals.
‘The hotels are busy, yes, but the small businessman is not profiting,’ said Glenroy Clarke, who has operated a taxi in the resort town for the past 12 years.
‘All the money stays within the four walls of the hotels and we hardly glimpse the guests. The little money that does filter down to us is not a lot when you consider how much prices have risen in the last year. It doesn’t go far when you go to the store to buy food.’
Juliet Fray, who runs a small traditional restaurant on the West End, agreed.
‘There are a lot of tourists around but because the hotels supply all the meals, people are not encouraged to come out and spend money with us,’ she said.
Jessie Williams, who runs a small coffee shop on the West End, was also critical of the all-inclusive policy.
‘It’s rough for the poor people who are trying to make a living,’ she said.
‘There is no reason for guests to come out onto the street and buy locally when they have everything from food and drinks to crafts available within the hotel.’
Jim Snelling, a tourist visiting from Minnesota, now chooses to vacation in a room-only guest house in Negril after he previously stayed in an all-inclusive and likened it to a ‘prison camp’.
‘We were actually discouraged from venturing out of the hotel alone and led to be believe it may be dangerous,’ he said.
‘Once I did go out, however, I discovered how delightful the Jamaican people are and how much fun I could have. If you stay in one of the all-inclusive hotels you could be anywhere in the world as there is little to let you know which country you are in.’
Heeding these fears, the Bluefields People’s Community Association, is taking a pro-active approach to the new Whitehouse resort.
It is undergoing a pilot project in education and training, which has already been commended by the United Nations as one of the best of its kind in the world.
And it hopes to act as a model for the rest of Jamaica and the wider Caribbean.
The association formed in 1988 when the people of the community came together to seek ways to better their lives.
Occupying a building which formerly housed a health centre, the BPCA focuses on education from kindergarten level to late tertiary.
More than 2,000 people have successfully passed through the organisation’s doors, many going on to study at university or to start up their own businesses.
BPCA vice-president Wolde Kristos, 33, is one of the graduates of the education programme, learning to read and write at the age of 20.
He has now formed his own company, offering ecologically-sensitive adventure tours in the area.
‘I think the way forward for the area is environmentally-sustainable community tourism,’ he said.
Mr Kristos revealed that only one person from the community was known to be employed at middle-management level at the new Sandals resort.
‘The others who have found work there are at the lower end of the scale,’ he said.
But Mr Kristos said he could not blame the hotel for this situation as the majority of people in the area did not have the requisite skills.
The association is now working to ensure that everyone in the community is literate and is educated about the requirements of the tourism industry.
‘We must be organised and approach this is in a business-like manner or our community tourism project will be seen as a joke around the world,’ he said.
‘We must offer a service, which is value for money; we do not want people to get hustled,’ said Mr Kristos
He pointed out that the Sandals hotel, which was built by the Jamaican government’s Urban Development Corporation, engaged a foreign firm for the construction contract and that many of the workmen also came from overseas.
‘These foreign workers were being housed in the community as well as being paid,’ he said.
To counterbalance what could cause resentment in the community, the BPCA is now in talks with Sandals about possible ecologically-sensitive excursions available in the area.
And Sandals has pledged to work with the BPCA in community development and also work with community-based attractions, which are properly organized.
Mr. Kristos pointed out that the marketing power of Sandals would put Jamaica’s south coast on the international map.
‘Not everyone will want to stay in an all-inclusive hotel so we must make sure that we are ready for all the other visitors that will want to come to this beautiful area as a result.’ he said.
One of the community’s greatest concerns is the impact on the fragile environment in which the hotel is built – a natural wetland area.
Sandals is the largest private sector employer in the Caribbean, with around 6,000 year-round staff.
‘Group-wide, Sandals currently sends 9,000 guests per week on tours to 126 local attractions,’ said Sandals spokesman David Ellis.
‘This translates to J$239 million in direct revenue into the pockets of the operators of these attractions annually,’ he said.
And he pointed out that Sandals purchases as much produce as is possible to obtain locally.
Mr Ellis also revealed that the resort group spends an estimated J$150million on local entertainment for its guests each year.
‘The all-inclusives are therefore not only a steady income provider for local entertainers, but a magnet for the development of local talent,’ he said.
Contracts to transfer visitors from airports to hotels and on all local tours are also given to local bus and taxi operators.
In addition, Sandals supports over 60 major community projects in the islands in which they operate.
And, it is mandatory for each Sandals resort to adopt at least one school in its host community.
‘We have engaged in the building of schools, the paying of teachers, supplying linen to infirmaries and hospitals, bringing medical care to communities, offering scholarships to children whose parents cannot afford tuition fees, provide support to community organizations to deal with social problems such as drug abuse and HIV/AIDS and play a lead role in environmental preservation among others,’ Mr. Ellis said.
Sandals also allows local craft vendors in its host communities to display and make craft items for guests on property every Friday.
Through a partnership with more than 30 local and overseas training institutions, the Sandals Training and Development Institute has provided training worth US$23million to Sandals employees over the last nine years.
Sandals is also helping to develop a hospitality culture through its ‘tourism in schools’ programme in which resort managers educate students about the industry.